Abu Atallah got hooked on painkillers after his house was destroyed and his 12-year-old daughter was killed by Israel's bombardment of the Gaza Strip at the turn of the year.
"I'm not an addict," said the 39-year-old father of five, who now lives in a cramped rented apartment in Gaza City, his home still in ruins.
Advertisement"The problem is that I cannot sleep unless I take one or two pills to calm me down."
Gazans are increasingly turning to Tramadol, a painkiller locally known by its brand name "Tramal," to ease the pain of a crippling two-year-old Israeli blockade and the lingering devastation from last winter's war.
Abu Abdullah started taking Tramadol to deal with the stress of chronic unemployment.
"I haven't worked in three years and I can't meet the needs of my children," the 45-year-old labourer said, asking that his real name not be published.
"In the beginning I took one Tramal I got from friends and I felt much better. Soon I was taking five pills a day."
Drug use was once rare in Gaza's conservative society, but addiction experts say prescription painkillers and marijuana have become more common since Israel and Egypt sealed off the territory to all but basic goods in the wake of the Islamist Hamas movement's bloody takeover in June 2007.
The blockade has confined nearly all of Gaza's 1.5 million people to the narrow coastal strip where the economy is on the verge of collapse and most residents survive on foreign aid.
Hard drugs are virtually non-existent in Gaza but many people have turned to prescription painkillers in the wake of the devastating 22-day war that Israel launched on the territory on December 27, according to experts.
"Some youths come in every day to buy painkillers such as Tradamol, but we don't sell it if they don't have a prescription," said a Gaza pharmacist, who declined to be named.
He added however that many people turn to the black market for their fix.
"The situation of always being on the lookout for the next Israeli war puts the people of Gaza in a state of worry and perpetual tension, in addition to the unemployment and the poverty," said Samir Zaqut, a psychiatric researcher in Gaza.
The Israeli offensive, which was aimed at halting rocket attacks, killed 1,400 Palestinians, 13 Israelis and reduced entire neighbourhoods to rubble.
The Islamist government ruling Gaza strictly forbids the use or sale of drugs such as Tramadol without prescriptions and last week police displayed 22 kilogrammes ( of hashish and some 4,000 pills, mostly Tramadol, which they said they had seized in a raid.
"We are fighting against the drug trade without mercy and we have been able to completely eliminate the trade and use of cocaine," said Sami Yaghi, the Hamas-run government's anti-drug czar.
"The biggest obstacle is the lack of control over the crossings, which the Israeli enemy exploits to allow whatever it wants to enter," Yaghi said.
He admitted, however, that the drugs are also coming in through the massive tunnel network beneath the Gaza-Egypt border, a lifeline for the local economy that is patrolled, regulated and taxed by Hamas authorities.
Abu Abdullah said the government's crackdown has made a difference, driving up the black market price to five times that of the pharmacies.
"It didn't used to be forbidden but now it is, so I'm trying to quit," he said.
But for him and many others, the addiction may prove too strong.
Doctors at a local rehabilitation centre recalled a young man who recently checked in with kidney failure after taking 20 Tramal pills in a single day.
The patient had two pills left in his pocket and asked the doctors to "give them to someone who needs them," according to one of the doctors, who asked not to be named. "This kid needs help," he said.
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